In the first published report of its kind, independent forensic experts from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) have found “compelling evidence” of “a coordinated policy and practice of systematic torture and ill-treatment against Belarusian citizens” detained for protesting rigged presidential elections in Europe’s last dictatorship.
Working in partnership with the International Committee for Investigation of Torture in Belarus (ICITB), members of the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) documented 50 cases selected at random from a database of some 1,500. Despite a geographical span across 15 different police stations in seven Belarusian cities, the experts concluded photographs, medical reports and interviews presented “highly patterned evidence of injuries” demonstrating a “punitive use of force” that qualifies as torture or ill-treatment.
The IRCT has found 'compelling evidence' of torture by members of Belarus' riot police, the OMON, seen here detaining a man in Minsk on 9 August 2020.
“On the evening of 10 August, I was walking home. The riot police officers stopped me. They started beating me. Beating with feet, batons, then grabbed me by the arms and legs and carried me into the paddy wagon,” said a man from Baranovichi, a small city in Western Belarus, describing his arrest and detention in a police truck.
“While they were carrying me, they stopped several times and beat me again. They put me on the ground near the paddy wagon and started shouting, ‘Who did you vote for?’ All this was accompanied by obscenities. I was silent. ‘For Tikhanovskaya?’ [Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition candidate for president] I was silent. They continued to beat me.”
“This report, which is one of the first by experts to review the available forensic evidence, firmly establishes the existence of medical and visual evidence that is consistent with and corroborates the allegations of torture and ill-treatment by complainants in every case we examined,” said the IRCT in its report, ‘Belarus: A Coordinated Policy of Torture’.
Click here to download the report.
Since pro-democracy protests began in August 2020 following the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko – a vote rejected as fraudulent by both the EU and the OSCE – Belarus’ state-run Investigative Committee reported receiving some 5,000 complaints of torture and ill-treatment. However, in August 2021 the Committee announced it would not initiate any criminal proceedings because the State’s use of force was in accordance with Belarusian law, “in the suppression of offences”.
In response to this statement, IRCT and IFEG asserted the importance of conducting effective forensic investigation of torture reports according to the international agreed principles set out in the Istanbul Protocol with a view to ensuring accountability and reparations for victims of these extensive human rights violations.
Members of IFEG are preeminent medical experts in the forensic examination of victims of torture, and its 42 members have examined around 40,000 cases and testified in court and other forums over 4,000 times. The aim of IRCT’s collaboration with ICITB was to determine the extent to which the available visual and medical evidence in each case was consistent with the individual’s allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
In total, the 50 case files included 130 documents with 613 pages, 286 photographs and four videos. Every case file contained an interview with an individual claiming to have been arrested between 9-12 August 2020 and subjected to torture or ill-treatment by the police and security forces during and/or subsequent to arrest. Almost every case file (49 cases) also included photographs of the complainant’s injuries taken at or before the time of interview. In addition, 35 cases included medical documentation. All case materials were translated by the ICITB from Belarusian to English.
The ICITB was created as a reaction of Belarusian and foreign human rights organisations to State torture and brutality towards civilians after the presidential elections on 9 August 2020. The ICITB is a founding member alongside IRCT member in Denmark, Dignity, the UK’s Redress and 14 other Belarusian and international NGOs of the International Accountability Platform for Belarus (IAPB). The IAPB is supported by 21 States and is mandated to gather evidence of crimes under international law committed by Belarusian authorities in the run-up to, during and after the 2020 presidential election, with the aim of contributing to accountability mechanisms, including eventual trials of perpetrators. The IRCT is a member of IAPB’s Advisory Council.
IRCT's report concluded that individuals appeared to have been targeted due to suspected participation in or support of protests - irrespective of whether they were actively engaged in any such activities at the time - and that the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ ‘Special Purpose Police Detachment’, known by its Belarusian acronym OMON, was a leading perpetrator of the torture. The OMON serve as riot police, and members wear balaclavas to keep their identity secret.
A Russian translation of the report is being released simultaneously by the ICITB.
Click here to download the report in Russian.
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Belarus is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship and its appalling record on human rights is an obstacle to bringing accountability for its widespread use of torture. In the fifth periodic report on Belarus’ compliance with the Convention Against Torture, which it ratified in 1987, the Committee Against Torture found confessions obtained through alleged torture were admissible in court [para.9] and that the criminal justice system continues to execute prisoners convicted of 13 serious offences.
That continued use of the death penalty is one of the reasons Belarus is not a Member of the Council of Europe and has not ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, meaning no case against it can be brought to the European Court of Human Rights. Although torture and inhuman treatment is a criminal offence in Belarus, and its criminal code Article 128 outlaws ‘Crimes Against the Security of Mankind’, Amnesty has documented how those reporting torture have been targeted and charged with criminal offences, nor does Belarus recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
However, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, crimes against humanity, including widespread or systematic abuses directed against a civilian population, can be tried in any jurisdiction, as demonstrated recently by German courts which tried and convicted Syrian officials for their role in torturing thousands of protesters in Damascus. Inspired by those trials, in May, ten Belarusians in Germany filed criminal complaints under the principle of universal jurisdiction against Lukashenko alleging torture and crimes against humanity.